Resurrectionists in Kentucky & the New Albany Affair

“The anatomy of the human body must be studied, and with or in spite of legal enactments, it will be, for it is the true cornerstone of medical study. Without it the healing art would cease to be healing, the processes of disease would be unknown, the means of cure, a sealed book.”

-Dr. David W. Yandell.

What was a Resurrectionist?

In simple terms, a resurrectionist was a body snatcher. That is, a single person or small group of men that would work covertly in the cover of darkness to dig up freshly buried bodies. There was a reason for this madness, however. A crucial part of studying medicine or anatomy is to get hands-on experience and this involves the dissection and examination of human (and animal) bodies. Before favorable laws, the process of obtaining a body for the purpose of dissection was strictly forbidden. Unlike a surgical procedure, with the intention of saving a life, this process essentially destroyed internal anatomy so that budding physicians could learn how to treat the living. This desecration of the human body was frowned upon at the very best and jailable or worse in other conditions. Though physicians-in-training could rely upon textbooks, this was an antiquated method that failed to give students the adequate hands-on training they so desperately needed. Though physicians and students alike were tasked with securing cadavers covertly this became too much and far too risky. As such, medical college instructors would secretly pay men who were tasked with digging up or obtaining “fresh” cadavers.

Though the general public was often aware of resurrectionists, their methods of operating, both to the general public and the medical communities, were largely left in the dark about what really went on. According to some published newspaper reports, this method is as follows:

The experienced resurrectionist would not remove all of the earth with which the grave had been filled while forcing open the lid of the coffin and then removing the body. This approach would work but would take precious time and significantly increase the resurrectionist’s chances of getting caught. Rather, a well-experienced resurrectionist would clear only the earth away above the head of the coffin while leaving the other areas as undisturbed as possible. The lid of the coffin was broken with a crowbar or some similar instrument, a rope was slipped under the arms of the corpse, and the body is carefully withdrawn. The clothing was replaced in the coffin and the grave was quickly but efficiently refilled. The reason clothing and other items were replaced is because this was considered theft, a prosecutable offense since one could not be charged with the theft of a body. In a shallow grave with light soil, the resurrectionist could remove a corpse and remove traces of being there in about fifteen minutes. Working fast was extremely important; however, working fast and as quiet as possible meant that the job would get done without being caught. The corpse would be placed in a sack and briskly carried away in a closed carriage.

What happened if a rival caught wind of a resurrectionist encroaching on “his” territory? It was not uncommon for this to happen in some areas and when it did happen, the resurrectionist would often take a break. Rather than give up a steady income, some would bribe local undertakers. In place of a body in the coffin, rocks or stones would be placed.

Which Bodies Were at Risk?

It should be noted that the few cadavers that medical colleges received were from those of condemned criminals. Demand, however, far exceeded supply. Commonly, the indigent and cases of suicide were frequently targeted. A resurrectionist could strike up a deal with a poorhouse and obtain bodies from there. Bodies were not the only target; in some cases, teeth were sought after for various uses. “Professional” resurrectionists, despite being careful, were sometimes caught by police or local authorities. Occasionally, surgeons would front money to keep the resurrectionist out of jail. In the South, it was not uncommon for the bodies of deceased black individuals to be shipped out throughout the North and Western United States.

Resurrectionists in Kentucky

“Obtaining Material”
Drawing by Charles H. Hentz, a Louisville medical student from 1846-1848. It is from his autobiography, which is deposited with family papers at the University of North Carolina. Depicts Hentz. walking behind Demonstrator of Anatomy Dr. Geo. W. Bayless who is carrying a recently “resurrected” specimen.
Image from the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 24 August 1986

At one point, the City of Louisville was home to eleven medical colleges that competed with the City of Philadelphia to be home to the city with the most medical colleges in the country. According to an article by University of Louisville medical historian, Dr. Allen J. Share, Dr. George Bayless of the Louisville Medical Institute was charged with procuring cadavers to dissect. Dr. Bayless often sought the assistance of student Charles H. Hentz who, “made arrangements with the sexton of the graveyard that lay between 14th and 15th, and Jefferson and Green streets–an Irishman named Gardner–used to come to the office very stealthily with slouched hat and cloak concealing his features and always giving a signal that it was he by a cluck with his lips.” Other stories include a University of Louisville College of Medicine student, Louis Frank who met with resurrectionists connected with the school and helped steal a body from the death room at the School. On another trip, Louis Frank and others dropped a corpse where it exhaled quite loudly leaving the crew nervous about the cadaver not really being dead.

Image from the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 23 September 1951

Louisville’s first man to establish and maintain a private class in anatomy, Dr. David W. Yandell, spoke of his early years. “At the beginning, I taught the first class in anatomy and operative surgery every taught in Louisville. I had my operating and dissecting room and my offices on Jefferson Street. […] From that time till now I have been engaged, directly and indirectly, year in and year out, in obtaining, and seeing, and handling dead bodies. It is part of my business as a teacher. It is a necessity as an operative surgeon. During all that time I have known of how dead bodies obtained, used, and finally disposed of. A very large number of subjects are required to supply the needs of the several medical colleges in this city. For many years to acquire this supply was a difficult task, and not always devoid of danger. But experience taught those of us engaged in the business, and finally all danger in the matter was altogether eliminated.”

Though Dr. Yandell referred to resurrectionists as “quiet, discreet, prudent, brave men, who were willing to obey orders,” others would think differently. In Kentucky the “official, unofficial” rules stipulated that no resurrectionists enter cemeteries and were to be enjoined to open the grave of no respectable citizen, male or female, white or black. According to Dr. Yandell, these strict rules managed to get Louisville colleges into a bind. This meant resurrectionists were called upon in distant and larger cities. Dr. Yandell only recalled a couple of mistakes in which the resurrectionist he employed brought to his rooms the body from a class not intended to be used. As time progressed, laws in Kentucky and elsewhere became more forgiving, allowing medical colleges to use bodies of unclaimed paupers and strangers dying in the public charities.

The New Albany Affair

Image from the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 26 February, 1890

In the early morning hours on February 25, 1890, a band of grave-robbers was surprised in the act of desecrating the resting places of the dead, and one of them was instantly killed. Three others were arrested and placed in jail though a fourth man managed to escape. The party consisted of Louisville physicians, Dr. J. T. Blackburn, Dr. W. E. Grant, and another unnamed physician, with three colored assistants. They had gone to rob the graves of the corpses of Tom Johnson and Ed Pearce, buried in the cemetery the previous Sunday. Though they had planned the affair, carelessness led to their downfall and the death of one man. Shortly after the funerals of the two aforementioned men, Dr. Blackburn traveled to the cemetery where he called upon young William Peebles to help him locate the fresh graves at the cemetery. Young William was initially offered $2 but that price rapidly increased to $20. Once paid, the young boy showed Dr. Blackburn where the graves were, not without being cautioned by Dr. Blackburn to say nothing.

The Young boy did not, however, keep this secret. He told the sexton of the cemetery, Dan Shrader. Shrader, filled with rage, ran to the office of Mayor McDonald and explained the situation to him. The mayor plotted a plan to catch the resurrectionists in a trap. The Chief of Police quickly arranged plans. They were to station at guard in the cemetery at night and wait for the grave robbers to arrive. Along with police officers, brothers of Tom Johnson were also made part of the plan to catch the resurrectionists. On orders of the mayor, the party was told to arm themselves. They arrived at the cemetery near dark and divided into two parties. It wasn’t until around midnight when the watchers heard something. It had begun raining, torrential at times, and lightning and thunder flashed and echoed. A wagon quietly made its way to the cemetery; it was pulled by two horses, one negro driving, and five men were in the vehicle, unseen by the watchers. The resurrectionists made their way to the Johnson grave but the Johnson brothers were hot on their trail. The brothers screeched, “Throw your hands up!” This was followed by the blast of a gun. Men ran. One fell to the ground. The man that dropped allegedly had a pistol but never used it. The remaining men stopped, while one managed to escape.

The young man that died, Mr. George Brown, an assistant janitor at the Kentucky School of Medicine, was noted as being a mulatto, apparently only about eighteen years of age and very slim. He was neatly dressed and had a revolver in his fingers. The two white men revealed that they were Dr. J. T. Blackburn and Dr. Grant from Louisville. Unlike Dr. Blackburn, Dr. Grant was not very communicative and failed to give his name or address. All of the resurrectionists, including the doctors, were taken to jail and locked up.

Dr. W. Edward Grant was the partner of Dr. E. R. Palmer and others both had a very prominent medical practice. At the time of his arrest, he was about forty-two years of age, tall, slender and had a “kindly” face. His fellow resurrectionist, Dr. J. T. Blackburn was much younger than Dr. Grant and had not been practicing medicine very long. Dr. Grant’s partner, Dr. Palmer was noted as belonging to the University of Louisville while Dr. Grant belonged to the Kentucky School and that the two were antagonists in matters of this kind (grave-robbing).

The Floyd Circuit Court returned indictments against Dr. Edward Grant, Dr. J. T. Blackburn, and the other resurrectionists, on two counts, one for attempting to rob a grave and the other for conspiracy to commit a felony. Though there were a number of ups and downs during the proceeding trial (including an arrest warrant being issued for Dr. Grant), the resurrectionists were acquitted of their charges because not even dirt was disturbed from the grave. Dr. Yandell, for example, was quite passionate about his stance on the murder of Mr. Brown. Dr. Yandell argued that Mr. Brown essentially lost his life for doing nothing. However, one could easily assume that, had the watchers not been there, the bodies very likely would have been taken. Still, it begs the question as to whether or not it was deserved to lose one’s life over rather than being punished by some jail sentence and fine.

Body-Snatchers at Work
From the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 24 August 1986

Contributed by Shawn Logan |

⁘ Works Cited ⁘

  1. The Lexington Leader, 9 December 1949
  2. The Lexington Leader, 12 December 1952
  1. Share, Allen J. “Bodies for Sale.” The Courier-Journal. August 24, 1986.
  2. The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 25 February, 1890, p. 1.
  3. The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 26 February, 1890, p. 6.
  4. The New Bloomfield Times, New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania, 20 April 1880, p. 3.

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